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Textile employees "in danger" in Bangladesh are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic

The Bangladeshi worker works in a clothing factory on the outskirts of Gazipur in Dhaka, Bangladesh on March 6, 2020.

Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – The coronavirus outbreak has shaken the apparel sector in Bangladesh – and thousands of factory workers took the brunt of it when they were suddenly stripped of their livelihoods.

The apparel industry has long been the lifeline of the economy, but as the pandemic devastated the world, orders worth billions of dollars were canceled as global retailers closed their doors and brands withheld orders.

Before the outbreak began, Mousumi, 22, who refused to give her last name, started a new job at a clothing factory in January after being unemployed since 2018. Through March, she was making about 10,000 Bangladeshi taka (US $ 118) every month. when factories across the country closed to slow the spread of the virus.

When the factories reopened with limited capacity in April, Mousumi said it was on standby for three months. Then on August 1, she said she was fired.

"They only said one thing: that they are firing people for coronavirus," Mousumi said, according to CNBC's Bengali translation of her statements.

Dulali, also 22, lost her job in April at ABA Fashions Limited, where she worked overtime to earn up to 11,000 taka per month. Since then, she has had problems finding a job. Like Mousumi, she was told the pandemic was to blame.

"They said there were no new orders because of the coronavirus and the factory owner was having trouble paying the workers," Dulali said, according to CNBC's Bengali translation of her remarks. She said her job search was futile and many others like her were also looking for work.

Dulali lives with her eight year old daughter. "We are living in great need right now," she told CNBC. She said she owed about 16,000 taka in rent. With her earnings of around 500 taka per month as a cook at her landlord's, they now come by – a fraction of the salary she used to earn.

CNBC spoke to six workers, including Mousumi and Dulali, by phone through the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation, which works with various unions. Some of them are employed while others say they have been looking for work since April or May.

Everyone spoke about the financial hardship they face, including potential poverty exacerbated by the crippling effects of the pandemic.

These are the most vulnerable workers, who are precarious in so many different ways, and who are paying the hardest price for this crisis.

Mark Anner

Professor at Penn State University

As the virus spread, many top retail brands canceled orders already in production. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) estimated the pandemic had an immediate impact on 1,150 factories, which reported $ 3.18 billion in order cancellations. According to BGMEA, Bangladesh lost $ 4.9 billion in clothing between March and June this year, compared to the same period last year.

BGMEA told CNBC that 71,000 workers have been laid off at its member factories in the past three to four months. A spokesman said most factories have laid off workers who have been employed for less than a year.

"Vulnerable" and "precarious"

Bangladesh is the second largest clothing exporter in the world – after China, according to the rating agency Moody & # 39; s.

The clothing industry is an important source of income for the country. According to the BGMEA, made-up garments accounted for 83% of Bangladesh's total exports worth USD 33.67 billion in the 2019-2020 financial year.

More than 4,600 textile factories in Bangladesh produce shirts, t-shirts, jackets, sweaters and pants. The clothes are mainly shipped to Europe, the USA and Canada to be sold by local retailers in these countries.

Women workers from Bangladesh work in a textile factory on the outskirts of Dhaka in Gazipur on February 17, 2018.

Mehedi Hasan | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Around 4.1 million people work in this sector – mainly women. But they often work long hours in penal conditions and earn very low wages.

"These are some of the most vulnerable workers in Bangladesh and in countries where garments are exported. Young workers (are) often internal migrants. So they come from the countryside to the city," said Mark Anner, professor of labor and employment relationships at Penn State University, CNBC said.

There are no fixed working hours. There is a lot of pressure at work, so we are forced to work.

Mousumi

Bangladeshi textile worker

30-year-old Bilkis Bigum lost her job as a textile factory worker on April 4 and has not found a job since. To get through, she worked as a housekeeper for a sick neighbor and initially relied on others for help with eating.

She is now starting a temporary hourly job that earns her around 200 to 300 taka – but paying the rent is not enough at the moment. Her brothers who work sometimes help her, but they also have their own families to look after, Bigum said.

"Now I work here and there, at least that way I can make some money," she told CNBC in Bengali.

Many of them have no savings and live from paycheck to paycheck, Anner explained. So when they lose their jobs, the effects are felt immediately.

"Sometimes their families at home depend on them, on internal remittances – they send money home to their families from the city. These are the most vulnerable workers, who are precarious in so many different ways, and the toughest price to pay for this crisis." numbers." " he added.

Anner released a report in March on the immediate impact of the pandemic on the apparel sector in Bangladesh. He said the report found that many brands were initially unwilling to pay suppliers for the cost of production and raw materials that were already purchased. This forced many factories to shut down and to employ vacation or fire service workers.

Reuters reported that while exports have recovered in recent months, Factory owners expect orders to be cut by two-thirds, saying retail buyers are calling for price cuts of up to 15%.

Bad working conditions

Mousumi said she stepped into a new factory that makes T-shirts and face masks a little over a month ago.

Working hours often extend past the usual 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., she said, adding that she sometimes worked shifts that went past midnight. "There are no fixed working hours," she said in Bengali. "There's a lot of pressure at work so we're forced to work. They work overtime for any work we do after 5:00 pm."

The salary she's on is less than what she made at her previous factory, she said. She makes about 8,500 taka a month, about $ 100, and is paid overtime on days she works after 5 p.m.

"It's less, but I can't find work anywhere else," said Mousumi. "I have a lot of problems in my family so I am forced to do this job."

The minimum wage that exists in many Asian countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia, does not cover the basic cost of living – what we call a living wage – for these workers.

Thulsi Narayanasamy

Business & Human Rights Resource Center

Workers in the sector are not paid a living wage and often work in poor conditions, said Thulsi Narayanasamy, chief labor rights officer at the UK's Business & Human Rights Resource Center.

"The minimum wage that exists in many Asian countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia, does not cover the cost of living these workers – what we call a living wage – for those workers," she told CNBC over the phone.

"Many of them are in debt, they don't have enough to cover three meals a day or basic expenses for them and their families. That's the cornerstone of the industry's exploitation," Narayanasamy said, adding that they work "incredibly long hours "Hours to complete orders with very short lead times. This creates a whole host of safety issues in the factory, including fire hazards, she said, citing the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse, which killed more than 1,000 people.

Brands have power

Narayanasamy said the main cause of the many problems workers face in the global apparel industry is the "deep power imbalance between fashion brands and factory suppliers and workers."

With more suppliers than buyers, fashion brands use their purchasing practices to determine how much to pay for orders and what processing time to give to factories.

"Factories are unable to bargain heavily because of the large number of factories around the world and the small number of fashion brands monopolizing the sector," she said. "What we then see across the board is failure to pay a living wage – and that has long been well documented."

Penn State's Anner said he is currently researching what current and future orders from brands to factories would look like at a time when global demand for apparel is low as countries remain partially lockdown and many people are urged to leave Work from home.

Finished textile workers work in a textile factory in Dhaka on July 25, 2020.

Ahmed Salahuddin | NurPhoto | Getty Images

"The big companies don't know how much they're going to sell in the coming months. They're not sure how to forecast the future. That's why they often place orders – but at a much lower volume than this time a year ago," he said. Data showed buyers were pushing the price down much more now than they were years ago, he added.

"This is a significant problem for me as it means double pressure on suppliers and pressure on suppliers always results in pressure on workers," he said.

For many of the workers, the pandemic has exacerbated their poverty and pushed them deeper into debt.

Mousumi said she took care of her mother and had to send her in-laws a monthly allowance. She said she ran into debt between 2018 and 2020 while she was unemployed. After losing her last job in August, she also incurred rental fees.

"Financially I had a lot of trouble … so I had to take this job," she said.

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